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March 25th, 2011 - Winter Green

A few weeks ago I was involved in a whirlwind trip around Wisconsin that had me helping out one of our other state agricultural nursery inspectors. It being March, there wasn't a lot going on in most nurseries, but the places we visited were "all winter" growers, being companies that keep their greenhouses running all winter (not an inexpensive proposition in northern Wisconsin).
These were very interesting places, and it was especially nice to see some very green plants and walk around in a 75 degree greenhouse after snowshoeing the perimeter of an apple orchard a couple days previously.
This place was a HUGE grower of geraniums, and was gearing up for Easter with pots and hanging baskets.
As a matter of fact, their were literally pots and baskets for as far as the eye could see.
It was mind-boggling. They had just built a new greenhouse solely for this plant material, and were busy potting, watering, hanging, and moving things around for the big shipment coming up.
The large green blocks you see on the right side of the above image are all pallets of hundred of pounds of peat.
From this, the nurseries make their own "soiless mix" to put in their pots, using peat as the base material. This is to keep the growing media as sterile and neutral as possible, and have a starting media that is clean, free of contaminants, and that can be specifically tuned to the plants being grown by adding things like Milorganite, permeability agents, fertilizers, growth inhibitors, and all kinds of voodoo to get your plants healthy and perfectly timed to be looking their best when you are admiring those beautiful baskets hanging in your local store.

The colors and smells in these places are amazing. The plants and trays just go on and on to the vanishing point.
Every house has it's own style of heating and ventilation, which are critical for keeping the plants within their growing conditions, and helping prevent mold, fungus, and insect growth from taking advantage of the small succulent little plants, much sought after by these organisms. As with other things in nature, the young shoots are the tastiest, and are often the most vulnerable as well.
They are always trying to maximize space in the greenhouse without cheating something out of it's sources of light, water, airflow, and nutrients. And all while trying to make them easy to get to.
These young starts are on large metal tray-tables that slide on rollers to create aisles, then slide back for watering. The roof is also on a computerized system for opening the vents and controlling fresh air, and temperature.
"The Language of Nature is Mathematics" - Galileo Galilei
Luckily most of these plants are annuals, which aren't as large of a concern to us nursery inspectors. Our definition of the plant materials we need to inspect is normally, "Materials that will over-winter outside in the Wisconsin climate," but we do inspect geraniums and most other plants that come in from other countries (even if they were inspected there before shipment) as there have been problems with viruses and insects brought in that didn't show up before the plants began to mature. Everything was super-clean here.
I thought these were going to be "upside down" tomatoes from a distance, but no, more ornamentals. Wow, there is a lot of weight hanging there.
I want that one. No, not that one. THAT one.

March 23rd, 2011 - Tales From The Wing Seat

recent Facebook discussion got me thinking about another one of those 'Travel Trips from Hell' of mine that happened long, long ago, one that I had pushed so far back into my little locker with all the other Travel Trips from Hell, nightmares, embarrassing moments from childhood, that it was deeply hidden under some bad hangovers and tacky memorabilia. 
Long ago and far away, I had been a field service technician for a 24 hour photofinishing laboratory known as Guardian Photo. The things that went on there during the 'normal' all-night shifts, things like people putting smoke bombs down the film chutes into the splicing rooms causing mass-evacuations, workers being served cease-and-desist orders in the middle of their shift, others being handcuffed and dragged away for god-knows-what, or irate boyfriends ramming cars in the parking lot were all taken in stride and could fill a chapter on their own. But let us focus on one trip away from the glitz, drudgery, and all-night party that was 24 hour photofinishing at that time. That time was the early 1990's.
This trip had me getting up early one morning on a weekday, (already a freakish start as I worked 10 PM to 6 AM and was lucky if I was getting to bed at 10 AM after a few dark beers in those days) and hopping a flight to Detroit (Dee-twa) from Minneapolis, where I would then board a small commuter aircraft and fly to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In Fort Wayne, Indiana was the Kodak Printer Maintenance School. This was a fancy name for an industrial bay that accepted printers from local photofinishing labs to be used as demonstration examples for repair instruction by Trained Kodak Factory Technicians. 
Sounding honest and noble on the surface, actually what was happening was that the local photo-finisher would send their crappiest broke-down piece of junk printer to the school and by the time we were done learning with it, they would have a nicely repaired and rebuilt machine, with a full overhaul having been performed on it by a group of students and factory-techs. How nice for them. Well, the premise was that we would see real-life problems that we might actually see in the field. And that was true, provided our own machines back home were crappy broke-down pieces of junk that had a zillion prints on them, which most usually were. So I guess it was a practical school. And I since didn't have to pay for it, so much the better.
The first leg of my flight to Detroit was uneventful. It was a nice day, sometime in the early spring of the year, I was kicking back and napping most of the way. 
Arriving in Detroit however, the weather was beginning to change. Thick fog was rolling in, cold damp breezes had begun to blow, and freezing drizzle peppered the airport windows.
Inside the gate, the boarding notice for Fort Wayne was called, and as I approached the doorway, it was clear that I was about to board the smallest commercial aircraft that I had ever seen. It had two propeller engines, one on each wing, and about twenty seats, judging by the number of windows.
As I walked out on the wet tarmac carrying my flight bag and began climbing the roll-up stairway attached to the plane, (that was about eight steps long total) I was thinking, I have never boarded a plane without a jetway before. Weird. I felt like I should have been wearing a trench coat and fedora, and have this mornings paper tucked under my arm as I tapped out my pipe on the handrail.
A cold mist stung my face as I stepped into the cabin and promptly clanged my head on the roof of the door. "Watch that," said the captain flatly as he shuffled papers in the tiny cockpit. "Yeah, thanks" I thought, as I made my way down the cramped aisle past other people rubbing their heads.
After finding my seat and staring blankly out the window for a few minutes, I notice a maintenance guy vaporizing out of the fog. He climbs a footstool, and opens a small hatch on the left engine. I watch him. From his bag he pulls out a quart of oil, and holding it deftly in his left hand like a grease-monkey in a George Raft movie, he plunges a metal filler-spout through the top of the can with his right hand and crams it down into a hole somewhere unseen beneath the cowling. I'm imagining the 'glug, glug, glug' from the can and thinking, "What's he going to do next, duct tape a crack in the prop...?!" {editors note: this is what happens when you don't tape the prop}
He yanks the can out while removing the spout in one snappy motion, with only a minor amount of oil dripping on his jumpsuit. Then he backs up a few steps, and while chucking the oil can into the back of his truck gives the pilot a thumbs-up. The engine turns over with what seems to be an abnormally long amount of chugging and shuddering, and finally a haze of pale blue smoke bellows from the exhaust, re-enforcing the stain that is already on the wing. Did the other engine start? Yup. We are now ready for take-off. I guess.
If I remember right, the flight was supposed to take about an hour and a half. The plane was manned by just the pilot and co-pilot, with no stewards or stewardesses. 
A video screen slowly emerged from the center aisle ceiling and a deteriorating tape-recorder voice explained where things were, what to insert into where, and that there would be no beverage service. It retracted again with little fanfare.
Soon we were bounding down the runway with both engines gunned up, cutting through the thick clouds of ground fog at what I imagined was top speed. I'm hoping the pilots can see better than I can, because I can't see a damn thing, and it takes me a second to realize we've even left the ground.
Maybe half of our twenty or so seats are filled, with mostly business types and the token parents with their screaming child. From my seat over the right wing (I guess I just naturally gravitate there), I can look straight down the aisle and into the cockpit. 
These were the days before security-sealed cockpits, and I can see the pilot and co-pilot with the yokes in their hands, along with a large green science-fiction-movie-looking radar tracking console shared between them. A bright green line tracks a circle on it with blobs of yellow beneath.
Once we get to "altitude", which I'm guessing is a few feet over the tops of the tallest buildings, the pilot comes on the intercom and explains that, "Hey, we're in for a bumpy ride today folks... looks like we've got a lot of cloud cover all the way to Fort Wayne... but we'll do our best to give you an enjoyable trip... keep your seatbelts fastened AT ALL TIMES, and sit back and enjoy the ride..." he says, just as we hit some turbulence with a sickening free-fall drop that makes his voice go up at the end. 
A short time later, I'm beginning to realize that I am not enjoying the ride. Our little craft is bouncing around the sky, moving forwards and sideways and vectoring into the fourth dimension all at the same time. It's like we're being blown by some unseen wind, and all I can see out of any window is milk. An occasional wisp of contrast goes by, but it's not enough to give my mind something to grasp to create the image of perspective, stability, or direction. It's just milk, milk, milk. I'm beginning to feel a little green around the gills.
My eyes wander around the diffuse light inside of the plane trying find something to focus on, and I begin to notice how grungy it is. My dog-eared copy of Hammacher Schlemmer has an obscene doodle on it's cover and numerous Cheetos are ground into a carpet of indeterminate color at my feet.
Soon I am grasping for some form of tantric meditation that will keep my stomach from rolling independently from the plane. Don't look at the milk. The milk won't help you. Hammacher Schlemmer is not helping. Ground Cheetos are not helping. Eyes closed, not helping. As I realize this and open my eyes, I notice the kid is no longer screaming. Well, that's something, I think. As I look over to his seat, I see why. His parents are showing him how to use the barf bag. Other patrons are using or seemingly thinking about using their barf bags too. The plane is playing a meandering one-note song of dual engine humming, struggling to maintain that one note and not quite doing it. This is soundtrack is accented by an occasional retch.
"Keep it together" I whisper to my stomach inwardly, and as my eyes go from rolling up inside my head to up the aisle towards the cockpit, the moment they reach the radar screen which is the only thing with any real regularity within my vision, it brightens for a moment, then shrinks into a single green dot, finally blipping out to a shade of dead pastel green like an old TV set. The co-pilot stares at it expectantly for a moment, then reaches back and draws the plastic accordioned curtain to the cockpit closed quickly, meeting my eyes for a fraction of a second. I look away and groan inwardly.
More milk goes by the windows. More retching. More roller-coaster dives and swoops. I never liked roller-coasters all that much. Focus. Let the mind go blank. Let the stomach be at peace.
Okay, say I DID want to use a barf bag, I should have it handy right?  I'm not giving in, I tell myself, I'm just preparing for any eventuality that might occur. I go through the seat pocket in front of me: Hammacher Schlemmer... Cheesy laminated evacuation instructions with 80's hairstyles... In-flight magazine, never read... and a barf bag. NO! A FULL barf bag. Ugh.
That's disgusting, I think as I try the next seatback pocket. Another full barf bag! The NEXT seatback pocket. Full barf bag. I collapse back into my seat and withdraw into my own private horror.
Example 'A':  Barf Bag.
Notice the full range of applications listed at the bottom of the bag.
Twilight Zone music begins to play inside my head as images of William Shatner looking out his window at a gremlin go by. But no, now it's just... milk.
Soon my lack of attention is snapped by a voice over the intercom announcing "THAT WE WILL BE LANDING IN FIVE MINUTES." 
Five minutes! I can do this. Focus. Don't look out the window. Don't look at the barf bags. Don't look at the Cheetos. Just, breathe and don't look at ANYTHING.
After the longest five minutes of my life, the ground is finally coming up to meet us. Or rather we are meeting it a little too quickly, and with a hard thump, an overhead compartment opens up, launching someone's briefcase airborne. Luckily it hits an empty seat and takes a nifty bounce before hitting the aisle floor and sliding into the bulkhead. No one says a word.
The microsecond we've stopped our forward momentum, my green passengers and I bolt for the cabin door. No one looks at one another. Goodbye, barf bag nightmare. 
Goodbye plane, I hope they clean you this time. Hello Fort Wayne, Indiana. It's SO good to see you.

March 6th, 2011 - Witchy Willows

Our snow has been 'come and go' lately, but I have been out snowshoeing in it as much as possible when it's around.
The other day we got a fresh six inches and I went over to 'Calhoun Park' in New Berlin, WI.
Calhoun is about the hilliest close wild place we have, which isn't saying all that much, this is southern Wisconsin and isn't exactly the Alps, but the place does have three sledding hills.
Anyway it's more than enough to get my heart rate pinned after about ten minutes when I'm wearing the big (28") Sherpas and using poles and wrist weights.
Here is a view from the upper trail. As you can see, the snow came from the north. Exclusively. A bit of a one-sided storm. 
This is not a black and white photograph by the way, that's the way it looked. 
Kind of the "bas-relief forest".
The next day much of the snow had melted off, but I put the Sherpas back on and walked out our patio and down along our little "creek".
It's been fun exploring along the creek, and this is about the only time of year it's easy to do. 
It gets really muddy and marshy in the spring, buggy in the summer, and really overgrown most of the year. The snowshoes get me around the seeps and over the prickly black locust. 
Well, most of it.
Yes, there is a creek there. Well, a flowage.
Is it a 'navigable waterway?
Depends upon the size of your boat, I guess. The beaver consider
it enough to try and dam up, so that to me, makes it official.
If you follow the creek far enough to get behind the neighboring apartment complexes, you come upon the scrubby willows full of "Witches Brooms."
These are weird growths that  make the twiggy branches look like, well, old besom brooms
A bit Harry Potterish. 
We also see them fairly frequently in evergreens when inspecting Christmas tree farms.
There are numerous things that can cause these strange growths. Often they are thought of as being "galls", but don't always fit that definition in the strictest sense of the term.

According to Paula Flynn from the Iowa Department of Plant Pathology, "In medieval times, mysterious and unexplainable occurrences were often blamed on witchcraft. Brooms during this time were made of bundles of twigs. 
The term witches' broom comes from the German word Hexenbesen, which means "to bewitch (hex) a bundle of twigs" (besom).
Witches' brooms occur on many different woody plant species, including deciduous trees such as hackberry, maple, and willow, and conifers such as pine and spruce. 

Here's a double.
There may be only one broom per tree, or they may be many scattered throughout the tree. In some cases, the brooms are quite large in size and are easily spotted. In others, they are small and well-hidden.
A number of stresses, both biological and environmental, can lead to the formation of brooms. Organisms such as fungi, phytoplasmas (bacterial-like organisms), mites, aphids, and mistletoe plants can cause abnormal growth when they attack a host tree. 
Environmental stresses that injure the growing points of branches can also trigger the formation of brooms. 
Some brooms appear to be caused by genetic mutations in the buds of the branches. Unlike brooms caused by living organisms, there is usually just one broom per tree when the cause is a genetic mutation. Pinpointing the cause of a witches' broom can be difficult, especially if the formation is related to an (abiotic) environmental factor."
Cool stuff. Mutant plants. And there is so much of this when you really start looking closely at growing things.
Cultural history, natural history, genetics, physics, botany, ecology, environmental science, and aesthetics all twisted up in some scrubby little branches. And these are the things that we can actually see
Imagine what is there that we cannot see...

March 3rd, 2011 - A Public Service Announcement - You May Be Wasting Money

My position as a Plant Pest & Disease Specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture brings me a lot of interdepartmental email. And I read a lot of Press Releases that I probably wouldn't if it wasn't for my job.
In Wisconsin, the Department of Agriculture operates under the "DATCP" or the "Department of Trade & Consumer Protection". As agricultural inspectors, we are responsible for the consumer protection of the growers, dealers, and end-users of plant materials, trying to make sure you get what you think you are paying for: plants free of pests, and plants that live up to their description and guarantee. Yes, some plants do come with a guarantee.
Another department under the DATCP umbrella is the state's main "Department of Consumer Protection", and within that resides the "Department of Weights & Measures." I read their releases religiously. It is to this entity I would like to draw your attention.
Weights & Measures is one of those near transparent governmental branches that works hard for you everyday, but unless you go looking for it, rarely do you realize the importance and numbers of what they do.

W & M Inspectors check the accuracy of gas pumps, prices at the checkout registers, grocery store scales, package weights, home heating fuel deliveries, and ALL other products sold by weight or measure. 
In 2010, DATCP weights and measures inspectors completed 192,045 inspections at 5,513 business locations throughout the state. 
The National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) estimates that weights and measures inspectors nationwide save the average family about $600 a year.

Here's the Wisconsin 2010 Weights & Measures Summary:

Number of
Total Accuracy
Gas Pumps30,26499.6%97.8%
Price Scanners
(Items Tested)
Retail Scales8,72999.6%97.5%
Package Weight
(Packages Tested)
*Percentage of time a consumer would be charged accurately or undercharged.
** Includes all overcharges and undercharges.

When you look at the accuracy rates and think of the sheer volume of transactions involved with these different measuring devices, it boggles the mind. Just because your sleek, super fast, convenient, carpal-tunnel inducing price scanner at the store down the street rings up your breath mints at $1.79 doesn't mean it's right EVERY TIME.

After testing over 29,000 items, it was only right 96.8% of the time. If your gun was going to fire a bullet out the barrel 96.8% of the time, and a bullet in your face 3.2% of the time, would you shoot it?

We put a lot of trust in our technology and take for granted that it is doing us right.

In June of 2010, a weights and measures investigation led to the conviction of a St. Croix County man. 
John Rassbach, of Rassbach Oil, was sentenced to four years in prison on 14 criminal counts of theft. Rassbach was ordered to pay $165,000 in restitution for stealing heating fuel from customers by overcharging through underfilling their tanks.
15 companies paid civil forfeiture settlements – totaling $216,461 – in 2010, as a result of weights and measures inspections into the following issues:

Wisconsin CVS Pharmacy, L.L.C.$93,332Inaccurate prices
Waukesha Wholesale Foods, Inc.$24,126Short weight seafood
Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co.$22,245Short weight seafood
Eastern Fisheries, Inc.$13,857Short weight seafood
Home Depot USA, Inc.$9,276Inaccurate prices
Roundy’s Supermarkets, Inc.$9,100.50Short weight seafood
Aldi, Inc.$7,756Short weight seafood
Marder Trawling, Inc.$7,756Short weight seafood
Topco Associations, L.L.C.$6,235Short weight seafood
Milton Propane, Inc.$5,570Short weight LPG cylinders
Schnuck Markets, Inc.$5,570Short weight seafood
New Horizons Supply Cooperative$5,023.50Short weight LPG cylinders
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.$3,161Short weight seafood
Abbyland Truck Stop, L.L.C.$2,406Short measure fuel
South Padre Seafoods$1,047Short weight seafood
In these settlements, none of the businesses admitted to committing the above-mentioned violations.

That's a chunk of change. And a lot of people are paying money for ice with their fish. Some quotes had it worked out to $23 a pound for some of the ice-stuffed seafood.

In 2009, state weights and measures inspectors conducted 178,844 inspections, including: 28,979 gas pumps, 25,637 price scanners, 7,538 retail scales and 110,539 package weights.
Twelve companies paid civil forfeiture settlements totaling $504,347 in 2009 as a result of weights and measures inspections. Many of these cases involved price scanner issues. 

It sounds pretty dry, but this week is Weights and Measures Week in Wisconsin.
"This week marks the signing of the first weights and measures law by then President John Adams on March 2, 1799. Wisconsin's Weights and Measures program dates back to 1839, when the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature enacted a law to standardize weights and measures."
So hat's off to your Weights & Measures people!

I am currently working on a presentation to teach people observational skills. One of the factors in observation is knowing what to look for. I vow to do better at this myself, and notice more things around me. Wasting money should be a pretty good motivation...

Here are some things you can do.

As far as gas pumps go:

>    Compare the price on the pump with posted advertisements to make sure they are the same.
>    Make sure the pump’s dial resets to zero before you start to pump gas.
>    Check to see the price per gallon remains the same throughout the pumping process. If the price changes or the numbers appear to skip, black out, or advance too fast that you cannot read them, there may be a problem.
>    Make sure the meter stops running when you stop the pump.
>    Check the price computation for accuracy. (Pump prices round up to the nearest whole cent.)
>    Always get a receipt, even when paying by cash, as this is your proof of purchase.
>    Review the receipt and make any errors known to the store clerk immediately.

General shopping:

>    Write down prices or special sales as you shop. In grocery stores, consider writing the price on packaging without a price tag. 
>    Bring the store's ad with you. Some advertised specials such as 25% off or a two-for-one sale may not be in the computer, and the cashier must enter them manually. 
>    When sold by weight, all items must be sold by net weight. The wrapping or container should not be included. This also applies to packaged items, which must indicate net weight. 
>    At the checkout counter, watch the display screen as prices appear. If you think you are being overcharged, speak up. Ask the cashier to make any adjustment before you pay. Some stores simply adjust the price; others deduct an additional amount or offer the mispriced item for free.
>    Check your receipt before you leave the store. If you have already left the cashier’s lane, talk to a store manager to correct any mistakes.

Wisconsin law requires stores to charge the lowest advertised price and refund any overcharges. Most overcharges are unintentional. Regardless of the reason, the law requires refunds when consumers are overcharged.

So hey, don't believe everything you read. Stop, Look, & Listen. Eat your vegetables. Wash behind your ears. Just kidding. 
But if we keep cutting the budget, you may have to do this stuff yourself from now on.
Even as it is, W & M inspectors can only test so much. 

So Caveat Emptor: "Let the Buyer Beware."
You're the next contestant on: IS THE PRICE RIGHT??? 

For more weights and measures information in Wisconsin, or to file a consumer complaint, contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection on the web at; via e-mail at; or call toll-free at 1-800-422-7128.

Public Service quota completed. Over and out.

March 1st, 2011 - Trees

The White Pines are showing their gold jewelery this time of year.

The White Birch are taking on some attributes of the red barn.

The Jack Pine's cone is an engineering masterpiece.
Set to open up at different temperatures, 
from early summer's heat to a wildfire inferno,
the tree times it's germinations for a better chance
at long term survival.
The Black Locust is a hardcase.
Nasty spines greet you when it's a young whip,
then when it gets big and old and crotchety,
it's lumber is the best for fenceposts.
They say it lasts 25 - 30 years, untreated.
The Juniper is a cool plant. Like the Black Locust,
 it takes a long time deciding if it's a shrub, or a tree.
This is a Juniper berry, the thing that gives gin it's flavor.
The green bow tie is the branch scar, which
up close looks like a very complicated net of plumbing.
The white dot is a drop of sap.
Why is it blue?
Because a vest doesn't have sleeves.
Trees need a place to grow.
This is the creek behind our apartment compartment.